As Bill de Blasio and Andrew Cuomo squabble about who gets to say that there will be no more school through this summer (spoiler: there won’t be), parents across the city have been plunged headlong into an unplanned experiment raising confined “free-range children” as the idea of a home education runs headlong into the reality of occupying small children for every... waking... hour.
Parents who are lucky enough to have jobs that they can do from home, and those who do not, are coming to grips with the reality, obscured in more normal times, that a fundamental role of the system is to warehouse our precious little ones so that, you know, we can do productive things, or anything at all.
In my experience as a mom to two kids in elementary school and the owner of a preschool whose calendar is, like many businesses, tightly tied to the public school schedule, this new reality has been an exercise in extreme mental flexibility, testing my waning competence with technology along with my clairvoyant abilities. For parents whose kids have special needs or whose households lack Wi-Fi or devices (which the city has been scrambling to provide) or are otherwise struggling in this exceptionally strange and scary moment, those challenges have been magnified.
Put it this way: My 5-year-old now has three or four conference calls a day (just like her dad!) and my 8-year-old is writing summaries of PowerPoint presentations. I’ve become an incompetent cartoon rendition of IT support while trying to navigate the CARES Act for my small business as my husband holes up in his home office, which our children have decided is their new de facto playroom. And we are people “with technology” and enough resources to have things like a home office.
“We’ve not been super great about it,” said New Yorker cartoonist Emily Flake, who has a second grader in the public school system.
“If I was a better parent I would be making lesson plans and planning out a curriculum that is within my skill set to teach her, like art lessons or something, but I’m not, because I am a garbage person and we are busy working. But also, we’re very lucky we are in a position where we are still working so we are just like, ‘Here’s a device to occupy you.’"
Flake had a discussion with her daughter about limiting the use of screens. It didn’t go well: “I said to her that I just don’t want you to be on this all day, to spend your life on devices, and she called me a hypocrite.”
Though if your second grader is using “hypocrite” that way, she’s probably doing alright.
My personal parenting philosophy has gone from keeping screens to a minimum to sitting the kids in front of screens to buy myself time. TV beats the Department of Education now, since—despite what teachers have said about “just leave your kids with us”—at their ages Zoom classes and Google Classroom PowerPoints demand my full attention. The second grader can’t really type yet, and the kindergartener can’t entirely manage a Zoom conference, even setting aside the part where the DOE has now said Zoom is no good and is requiring teachers who’d just started mastering that system to prepare to switch to other, more secure, video conferencing alternatives. It’s a steep learning curve all around.
“For high school it’s not ideal but you can transmit the information and have them do assignments,” said a public high school school teacher who is also a parent of young kids in public school. “But for kids in elementary school, it’s a little absurd. Those teachers are doing the best they can, and some of them are doing a really great job, but you just can’t do the early grades remotely.”
Another mom, who has a kindergartener, a 3-year-old and a 4-month-old baby (and who asked not to be identified by name) said that “while I applaud all of the effort of our educators I’m certainly not in a position to educate my child at home and distance learning can only do so much, so we’ve been mostly playing and watching TV.”
She went on to say that “video conferencing, it's such a weird substitute for real interaction, and I think it’s hard for my kindergartener to understand.”
My kindergartener loves school, but my second grader, as a matter of identity, hates it, and was initially thrilled that it was cancelled. Now, though, she wants to go to school and see her friends and “stuff.” It’s been a weird parenting moment to feel regret that my kid can’t participate in the time-honored childhood tradition of unwaveringly and openingly hating and never wanting to go to school. Strange times.
Flake, the cartoonist, said, “I think coming back is going to be a weird and dislocating experience for everybody,” joking that in the fall teachers “are basically going to be dealing with feral children.”